Tag Archive | Treuer

Paper #6: What it Means to be a Scholar of Native American Literary and Cultural Studies

SAIL Image. Studies in American Indian Literatures 11.3 (1999).

From SAIL, or Studies in American Indian Literature

As a part of our exploration of English studies this semester, Dr. Luisa Igloria, creative writer and professor of creative writing at ODU, spoke to our class about the inherent issues of creative writing as a field. Though I am not a creative writer, nor am I exploring that field, I was intrigued by Dr. Igloria’s talk, specifically her approach to workshopping and helping creative writers discover the true direction of their work. Dr. Igloria asks her students to consider what their work is really about—to concentrate on and discover what the real message or point is, in order to determine how to frame or change their delivery. I’ve turned Dr. Igloria’s insight over in my mind since the night she made that comment, and I have spent the final weeks of the semester mulling over what my purpose is, or what my work in the sub-discipline of Native American literary and cultural studies should do, say, or mean. What message would I want to send through my scholarship in this field, what would drive my intention?

I knew the answer to this question at the beginning of the semester, or really, before our class even started. As I mentioned in the first PAB entry I completed for our class, which was on Ojibwe author and critic David Treuer’s 2009 talk “The Cultural Twilight,” this summer I visited one of the most frequented travel destinations in the world—the Grand Canyon—which also happens to sit on Hualapia land. As I mentioned in my PAB entry, the cost per person for entry into the park was forty dollars (and an additional thirty-five if a tourist wants to step out onto the Sky Walk), and there were busloads of tourists from around the world lined up to pay that amount on the day I visited (and I suspect on most days). Yet it’s abundantly clear that only a small portion (if any) of that money goes to the Hualapia people, whose community is in abject poverty. As we drove the thirty or so miles through the reservation to the entrance of the park, I distinctly remember the sun glaring sharply off of the sheet metal that was propped up against shacks and double-wides, and the plywood that covered windows or served as a door to someone’s home. Though there were many homes, there was only one post office and one convenience store, both joined together and sitting in the middle of this thirty-mile desert stretch, in the middle of a community that looks as if it had a total of maybe ten cars. When I look back on this, it’s easy to realize what drives my intention in Native American literary and cultural scholarship, and what drives my desire to participate in this field: blatant, unapologetic injustice. When I read American history, see another popular stereotype in action, or simply drive through tribal lands to visit a global destination, I can’t believe there’s an injustice so loud and so obvious, yet so unnoticed and accepted. Though I was fairly certain I knew what drove my work in academia prior to our course and our opportunity to delve into any subfield of English studies we wished, I can say now—at the end of the semester, after consideration of the conventions of NA literary and cultural studies, and after reflecting on my motivation and purpose—that I want my scholarship to help, in any small way, heal the injustices wrought against a peoples.

But is that desire ethical? Is it right? Is it fair for a young, white scholar who knows very little about tribal histories, stories, and tragedies to insert herself into a conversation in this field from the platform of academia, a mistrusted institution that continues to legitimize and then de-legitimize the field of Native American literary and cultural studies? These are the questions that have plagued me all semester long. In the past, I have been quite comfortable completing ecofeminist, environmental justice, and postcolonial scholarship, but perhaps that is because in that kind of scholarship, I can openly acknowledge that I speak from the hegemonic center as a white, middle-class female, and through that acknowledgement, it is appropriate for me to speak and argue against that center. Does the same hold true for NA literary and cultural scholarship, and should it hold true? For communities that have been literally and figuratively terrorized by Anglo-Europeans, then by the nationalizing cry of Manifest Destiny, and finally by modern globalizing and economic forces, I can’t help but think a resounding credo for these communities would be “Stay out.” Furthermore, western academia is still not completely trusted as an institution, for it has only (relatively) recently become a destabilizing, decolonizing force in the world since the feminist and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s; indeed, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Native Americans began translating and theorizing about their own materials in the academy.

The question of my legitimate or ethical place in the conversation in the field of Native American literary and cultural studies was further complicated by my research into conversations in the field this semester. Crow-Creek author and scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, in her 1997 work “Who Stole Native American Studies?” writes:

No thoughtful Native scholar suggests that the primacy of the Native voice should exclude any other. Yet such fears are harbored throughout academia. Even cursory readings in the journals read by humanities and social sciences scholars charge that the Native American Studies interest in this primacy is both racist and anti-intellectual. While it is certain that sovereignty and indigenousness are clearly matters for the Native populations (nations) themselves in collaboration with the U.S. court systems to address, they are, surely, questions for educators and intellectuals of all persuasions to explore. (21)

And yet, though Cook-Lynn insists the primacy of Native voice is not intended to exclude, in his 1999 work Red on Red: Native Literary Separatism, Creek author Craig Womack writes:

I say that tribal literatures are not some branch waiting to be grafted onto the main trunk. Tribal literatures are the tree, the oldest literatures in the Americas, the most American of American literatures. We are the canon…without NA literature, there is no American literature. We should not allow ourselves, through the definitions we choose and the language we use, to ever assume we are outside the canon; we should not play along and confess to being a second-rate literature. Let Americanists struggle for their place in the canon. Understand this is not an argument for inclusion—I am saying with all the bias I can muster that our American canon, the Native literary canon of the Americas, predates their American canon. I see them as two separate canons. (14)

Echoing Womack in his 2009 talk at the fortieth anniversary celebration of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, Treuer asserts that:

Phil Deloria [Dakota author of Playing Indian, and son of Vine Deloria, Jr., author of Custer Died for Your Sins and We Talk, You Listen] was right—they tried to kill us in order to become us, and it was largely through the activist, legitimizing practices of NA studies along with activism proper and the activist agenda…that the United States had to settle with emulating us while we were still alive to berate them for it. In order to claim space for its expression, American Indian Literature and criticism argued, rather counter to mainstream critical practices, that its subject and method was other, different, because its subject was its method. Native American literature and criticism argued that even though the literature was largely in English, the structure and sense politics of the thing was Indian and derived from Indian ways of thinking and making meaning, from Indian people and Indian communities. If it wasn’t, it should be. (48)

Initially, the conversation taking place in the scholarship (as indicated above) that I read this semester seemed to confirm my fears: I was treading into territory that I did not belong, and becoming a participant in the hegemony I was trying to displace. I initially thought that though Cook-Lynn and others adamantly insist that the primacy of Native voice in studying Native materials should not and does not exclude non-Native voices, Womack and Treur’s language indicates that there is still understandable resistance against Native American materials—voices, texts, lives, beliefs, ceremonies, philosophies, etc.—being studied outside of “Indian ways of thinking and making meaning” (Treuer 48). However, it was towards the end of the semester, and in prepping for what I would share with my classmates about what it means to be NA literary and cultural scholar, that Cook-Lynn’s words especially began to click. When I stepped back, I realized the deeper extent of Cook-Lynn, Womack, and Treuer’s remarks: these scholars are not arguing that only Native scholars and voices are relevant and valuable. They are saying that to reject the primacy of Native voice and knowledge for the sake of following established academic methodology and criticism, or to continue to discount Native epistemology and methodology because it’s not yet fully vetted by the academy, is wrong and disrespectful. Cook-Lynn is arguing in “Who Stole Native American Studies?,” and later in her 2005 article “Reclaiming American Indian Studies,” that to label an academic field “racist” or “anti-intellectual” (or “purist” or “essentialist” as Womack points out in Red on Red) is to continue the tradition of discrediting Native voices, beliefs, and ways of being in the world. I realized then, as simple as it sounds, my confidence to enter a conversation in the field, would not come from empathy or sympathy, as I cannot empathize nor sympathize with members of indigenous communities because I am not from an indigenous community or anything remotely like it. My confidence to enter into the field of NA literary and cultural studies as a respectful, ethical scholar, I discovered, comes from my intention, and my belief and acceptance of the primacy of Native voice and epistemologies in the study, analysis, and discourse on NA objects of study (this seems obvious to me—how else could we study it?), and in my ability to care just as much about issues of sovereignty, indigenousness, and justice as Native communities do. For, as Cook-Lynn says, these are issues “for educators and intellectuals of all persuasions to explore” (“Who Stole?” 21).

I struggled with the question of my place as a scholar in this field all semester long, and I’m glad I did. I do feel that to be a scholar of NA literary and cultural studies (and really, a scholar of any field in which one is an outsider to that community), one must question and decide on her intention, and preferably be able to articulate it! (I’m still working on that, myself.) In my interview with Dr. Drew Lopenzina, professor of Native American literary studies at ODU, I asked Dr. Lopenzina about his experience and his advice on how to conduct appropriate, respectful scholarship in the field when he is not a member of any tribal community, like myself. He was kind enough to share with me the story of his rite of passage in the field in this regard. At a NA literary and cultural studies conference a few years ago, Dr. Lopenzina was speaking on a panel, and in the following panel discussion, he was challenged by one of the heads of the tribal council who had attended the conference. Dr. Lopenzina was openly critiqued and lectured to by the member of this tribe, and then was asked to explain the intention and belief behind his scholarship. Dr. Lopenzina told me he answered honestly, sincerely, and openly, and it is because of the honesty and sincerity, and respect, behind his answer and explanation that many came up to him after the panel and congratulated and thanked him. Eventually, he and this older gentleman from the tribe even reconciled. This story—Dr. Lopenzina’s rite of passage in the field—demonstrates to me that to be a scholar of this field means knowing your intentions, and making certain those intentions are based in truth and respect. (I imagine and hope though that this holds true in any field.)

With the right intentions, and with the belief that NA objects of study should indeed by studied from an indigenous, tribally-based perspective, I feel that to advance further in this field absolutely requires my learning about as much as I can about one particular nation or tribe. I specify one particular nation or tribe because I do not want to make the mistake of assuming I could learn all there is to know about even one particular tribe, let alone all North American tribes or nations. There will be knowledge that I, even as a scholar, will never be privy to, and even certain language and stories I could never learn (nor would I ever ask to, as that is a clear boundary). In order to even begin to understand, let alone apply, a tribally-based or indigenous perspective or methodology to a certain text (let’s say a novel, which I typically work with in literature), I would have to understand the basic epistemology or world view of the tribe, the stories and histories that are important to the tribe (as these will arise in NA literature), the way of speaking and perhaps even a basic understanding of the language, as this always informs the structure of the text and the connotations of certain words. This kind of work requires much more specialized study than I have completed this semester, which was more of a general overview of the state of the field as a whole. The field however, as a whole, accepts and expects a tribally-based approach in literary studies in 2014—so a specialized scholarship is required.

However, as I mentioned in my fifth paper this semester on my epistemological alignment in the field, a tribally-centered approach looks different to nearly every scholar in 2014, and literature is only aspect of NA literary and cultural studies. The field is incredibly, incredibly diverse and interdisciplinary, from the materials that can be studied in the field to the methodologies that can be used to study those materials. The number of possibilities and directions of study in this field is overwhelming, yet exciting. Again, I think to do honest and respectful work in this field, one must always examine her intentions, and where her true calling lies. For me, that means attempting to help alleviate—in some way—what are glaring and alarming injustices, and I often notice those injustices in representations of history, economic and environmental conditions, and education.

I believe Dr. Lopenzina and other scholars who work in historical recovery and righting false representation are doing incredibly important scholarship. Dr. Lopenzina has completed extensive work on William Apess and continues to do so, and his work is important because it reminds us that Native Americans were not just historically shoved off their lands or decimated. Many Native Americans, such as William Apess, were highly educated in early American systems, and used the tools of colonial discourse against colonizing forces. For me, I see promising scholarship in the bizarre myth, lore, and discourse put forth by history and stage productions (and by many North Carolinians) about the “Lost Colony” of 1585 Roanoke.

One of the most helpful and exciting works I read for my research into the field this semester was Laguna author Paula Gunn Allen’s 1992 (second edition) The Sacred Hoop, in which Allen, who was trained in traditional feminist scholarship but was also Laguna, demarcates the problem with applying traditional, western feminism to tribal texts, and thus argues for and demonstrates a tribal feminism. Her piece “Kochinnenako in Academe” not only kept true to the calling for a tribally-centered approach, but also offered outsiders trained in traditional western approaches a clear window to see into tribal stories and interpretation. Sadly, Allen is no longer living, however she published extensively while alive, and was extremely vocal and forthright in her antinuclear efforts. Her cousin, Laguna Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko, has also published extensively, and focuses a good portion of her writing on the environment, as Allen did. If I were to continue to work in literature (fiction and non-fiction), I would absolutely love to work more extensively with Allen and Silko’s texts and ideas, and would most likely bring my own understanding of ecofeminism and environmental justice to that work. In the past, I’ve typically relied on Vandana Shiva’s understanding of ecofeminism and environmental justice, and though I know I need to refresh my memory, I am confident there is overlap in Shiva’s concern for the exploitation of nature by multinational corporations (as I recall from her 1993 work with Maria Mies, Ecofeminism) and Allen and Silko’s concern over nuclear energy issues in North America.

Last but not least, I know there is real work to be done in education—for all. Though I know at my school, John Tyler Community College, a very small percentage of our students are Native American—but that’s only at my school, in my tiny corner of Virginia. Some of the research that I read this semester had nothing to do with English as a discipline, or Native American literary and cultural studies; however, it brought to my attention just how uninviting traditional academic institutions can be to Native American students.  Dr. Teresa Trumbly Lamsam’s (professor of Communication at U of Nebraska) work, “A Cultural Contracts Perspective: Examining American Indian Identity Negotiations in Academia,” and Stephen V. Flynn (Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology at Plymouth State) and Seth D. Olson and Adriana D. Yellig’s (Division of Counseling and Psychology in Education at the U of South Dakota) work, “American Indian Acculturation: Tribal Lands to Predominately White Postsecondary Settings,” both focus on undergraduate or graduate students who are self-identified Native Americans at four-year universities, but not at community colleges. As these scholars outside the field of English point out, Native American students are constantly struggling in negotiating identities, and typically have little support to do so. Though this work would be more pedagogical than literary in nature, that’s exciting to me; again, at the end of the day, I would like to contribute to this field in a way that tangible and helpful.

In closing, becoming a scholar in the field of Native American literary and cultural studies demands serious, thoughtful, and sincere reflection on one’s own desires, motivation, and intentions, particularly if you are an outsider to the community. Of course this is true for most any field, but I feel that it’s especially important in this one. In English studies, where we are constantly blending, differentiating, compartmentalizing, shifting, changing, and everything in between, Native American literary and cultural studies, as a sub-field of English, has often gotten lost or pushed off to the side, or relegated to only one member of an English department. My hope is that as the broader discipline of English grows and re-asserts its vital necessity in an increasingly disorienting and at times incoherent world, NA literary and cultural studies will also grow and re-assert its necessity as a field that seeks to strengthen and revitalize the communities and world views that have previously been dismissed and abused in the worst extremes. My hope is that English, as a discipline, will continue to house all of the sub-fields, such as NA literary and cultural studies, that are working to bring justice to the communities and peoples who need it most.

 Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. Introduction and “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches in Interpreting a Keres          Indian Tale.” The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston:              Beacon P, 1992. 1-7 (Introduction), 222-244. Print.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. “Who Stole Native American Studies?” Wicazo Sa Review 12.1 (1997): 9-28. Web. 10 October 2014.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth, Tom Holm, John Red Horse, James Riding In. “First Panel: Reclaiming American Indian Studies.” Wicazo Sa Review 20.1 (2005): 169-177. Web. 10 October 2014.

Flynn, Stephen V., Seth D. Olson, and Adriana D. Yellig. “American Indian Acculturation: Tribal Lands to Predominately White Postsecondary Settings.” Journal of Counseling and Development 92 (2012): 280-293. Web. 15 September 2014.

Lamsam, Teresa Trumbly. “A Cultural Contracts Perspective: Examining American Indian Identity Negotiations in Academia.” Journal of Cultural Diversity 21.1 (2014): 29-35. Web. 15 September 2014.

Lopenzina, Drew. Personal Interview. 9 Oct. 2014.

—. Red Ink: Native Americans Picking up the Pen in the Colonial Period. New York: SUNY P, 2012. Print.

Shiva, Vandana and Maria Mies, eds. Ecofeminism. ZedBooks: Halifax, 1993. Print.

Treuer, David. “The Cultural Twilight.” University of California in Los Angeles. UCLA American Indian      Studies Center, Los Angeles, CA. Gathering Native Scholars and Artists–A Celebration of Forty Years. 22      Oct. 2009. Conference Speaker.

Womack, Craig. Introduction: American Indian Literary Self-Determination. Red on Red: Native American              Literary Separatism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999. Nook File. 9-30.  

Paper #4: Allen’s Tribal-Feminism and Vizenor’s Trickster Hermeneutics: Two Theoretical Approaches to Studying Native American Materials

Paula Gunn Allen

Allen’s 1983 fiction work

Theoretical approaches and methodologies in the field of Native American (NA) literary and cultural studies have been in constant dispute since the inception of the field in the late 1960s. And it’s not hard to understand why—for centuries, Native Americans did not have primacy or power over their own objects of study (OoS), but were instead treated as objects of study (as one glaring example, Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, who was studied and housed in a University of California building until his death in 1916). Additionally, even when NA scholars finally gained entrance into the academy after the Civil Rights Era, the only acceptable theories and methodologies available to them were those created and perpetuated by the same social scientists who had misrepresented and misappropriated tribal peoples since the inception of the social sciences in the academy. The Civil Rights Era, of course, brought a monumental shift in higher education in America, and it was through the rise of feminism, multiculturalism, and ethnic studies that NA scholars were finally able to gain a voice and the power to study and interpret their own materials.

However, while it is generally agreed upon now that Native scholars and non-Native scholars have primacy over NA OoS in the academy, the theories and methodologies used to analyze those OoS is still a sensitive topic. Most scholars in the field in 2014 are in agreement that a tribally-centered approach (put forth by scholars such as Womack and Cook-Lynn in the nineties) is the only appropriate approach, although this approach can look radically different among scholars and among tribes. Additionally—and this complicates the scholarship quite a bit—most scholars in the field seem to have reached a consensus that much of postcolonial and cosmopolitan theory(s), and even multicultural and (western) feminist theory(s) is not acceptable to the field, as nearly all NA scholars, writers, and artists consider colonization, and any means of making knowledge coming out of the west (even if it’s to destabilize western hegemony), to be an ongoing struggle for indigenous peoples. However, this does not mean that all scholars have abandoned postcolonial, cosmopolitan, multicultural, or feminist theories or approaches to study NA OoS; for example, scholars Arnold Krupat and Elvira Putiano, two of the most widely recognized non-Native scholars in the field, argue that these approaches are valuable and relevant, and continue to employ them in their scholarship. As Krupat has argued in the past, there is no such thing as a “pure” peoples, and thus no such thing as a “pure” literature or a pure approach to studying that literature—we live in a globalized, hybridized, blended world (“Review: Red Matters” 660). Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that NA epistemologies are vastly different than a western epistemology—so how do we truly study NA OoS?

As expected, there are real problems with non-Native scholars using non-Native approaches: an outsider using outsider (and historically and understandably questionable) approaches. Furthermore, there has been real historical contention over Native scholars using non-Native approaches, even if those scholars have clearly tailored their approaches to be tribally-centered. Paula Gunn Allen (who sadly passed in 2008) and Gerald Vizenor are two prolific Native scholars, writers, and theoreticians who have taken western theories—feminism in Allen’s case, and postmodernism, deconstruction, and structuralism in Vizenor’s case—and arguably created tribally-centered theoretical bodies, regardless of the western origin of the original theory. Though scholars such as Womack and Cook-Lynn have critiqued Allen and Vizenor’s use of western-based theories in tribal scholarship, Allen and Vizenor have had an undeniably profound impact on the field. They were two of the first Native scholars to enter, teach, and write in the academy in the Native American Renaissance of the late sixties, and Allen’s tribal feminism and Vizenor’s trickster hermeneutics have made it so all scholars, regardless of race or tribal orientation, can actually begin to understand and enter the conversation on NA OoS and epistemologies, from a tribal perspective.

In order to understand both Allen and Vizenor’s place in the field and the evolution of their respective approaches to NA OoS, it’s essential to understand the history of both scholars, as their own lives clearly inform their work. Harold Bloom’s anthology Native American Women Writers begins with a focus on Allen, and offers biographical information as well as excerpts from interviews over the years. According to Bloom’s anthology, Paula Gunn Allen (1939-2008) is of mixed-blood descent, born to a Keres-Laguna/Acoma-Pueblo mother and a Lebanese father, strongly identifying herself as Laguna-Pueblo. Allen is also cousin to Leslie Marmon Silko, the author of Ceremony. Allen originally received her MFA in creative writing in the sixties, and says she was influenced by Shelley, Keats, Stein, the Beats, and N. Scott Momaday. She was asked to teach in the newly formed Native American studies program at the University of New Mexico in the early seventies, and by 1975, she earned her own Ph.D. in American studies, with an emphasis in NA literature. Allen has published a few different volumes of poetry, and her first novel was the fictional The Woman Who Owned the Shadows in 1983, whose main character Ephanie (of mixed descent, like Allen) uses a vision quest to understand and accept her lesbianism, and it was shortly after the publication of this novel that Allen published her seminal scholarship on tribal feminism, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions in 1986, which was updated in 1992. Before her untimely death, Allen published numerous fiction and nonfiction works, poetry, and scholarship, and taught NA studies (with an emphasis on tribal feminism) at prominent institutions such as UC Berkeley and UCLA.

As Annette Van Dyke explains in her essay “Women Writers and Gender Issues,” the central tenet of Allen’s work is “delineation and restoration of [a] woman-centered culture” (95), and points out that The Sacred Hoop was “the first to detail the ritual function of Native American literatures as opposed to Euro-American literatures,” which is significant as “Allen’s belief in the power of the oral tradition embodied in contemporary Native American literature to effect healing, survival, and continuance underlies all of her work” (96). Indeed, Allen’s essay “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale” from the larger work The Sacred Hoop, offers all readers clear insight into a traditional Keres-Laguna Yellow Woman (or Kochinnenako) tale. In the essay, Allen demonstrates the central point of her larger work of restoring and detailing the feminine tradition in Native American literature, by offering readers three different versions of the Yellow Woman story of Sh-ah-cock and Miochin, or Battle of the Seasons: a translated, westernized version; a traditional Keres Indian version; and her own translated version. Allen then reveals to readers how translated versions of NA oral narratives, which are typically translated by white social scientists, often employ western narrative structures and patriarchal assumptions about women and men. Allen also reveals that the reason the traditional Keres version of the tale reads not at all like a “tale” is because it is an oral story told during the ritual that invites in summer or winter. In other words, ritual actions are taking place as the story is being told aloud, and therefore, no reader should read the tale as a “story,” but rather as a ritual that demonstrates Yellow Woman’s essential and significant place as balance and entry/exit for the seasons.

Most significantly in “Kochinnenako in Academe,” Allen walks readers through a tribal feminist reading of the tale, and details the significant difference between a western feminist reading and a tribal feminist reading. As a western scholar who uses feminist approaches quite a bit in my scholarship, I truly value Allen’s insight. As she explains, a traditional, western feminist (keep in mind, Allen is writing from the early nineties, and feminist scholarship has changed quite a bit since then) tends to automatically read with the assumption that women have no agency, and we tend to look for the ways that agency is stripped or the ways in which a female character tries to regain that agency. Allen notes that “a feminist reader might assume that Kochinnenako has been compelled to make an unhappy match by her father the ruler, who must be gaining some power from the alliance” (235), and given the western translation of the story, “a modern feminist would have good reason to make such an inference” (234). However, Allen points out that in a tribal feminist reading—which uses tribal understanding and history to understand the story—the idea of Kochinnenako being powerless, or that conflict and violent resolution of that conflict is inevitable, is overturned. From a tribal-feminist perspective, we understand that “agency is Kochinnenako’s ritual role here; it is through her ritual agency that the orderly, harmonious transfer of primacy between the Summer and Winter people is accomplished” (238), and that “a feminist who is conscious of tribal thought and practice will know that the real story of Sh-ah-cock and Miochin underscores the central role that woman plays in the orderly life of the people” (239). As a western feminist scholar who is unfamiliar with reading traditional Laguna-Keres stories and rituals, Allen’s reading opens a whole new understanding of NA OoS and epistemologies to me.

Overall, Allen argues that a feminist approach is absolutely essential to the teaching of NA studies, because “the area has been dominated by paternalistic, male-dominant modes of consciousness since the first writings about American Indians in the fifteenth century. This male bias has seriously skewed our understanding of tribal life and philosophy, distorting it in ways that are sometimes obvious but are most often invisible” (222).  In the introduction to the larger work The Sacred Hoop, Allen offers several points that she herself has learned in her theorizing on NA literature, with the most significant tenets being:

  • The tribal lifestyles of most NA communities, historically, are “never patriarchal” and most often are gynocentric, and gynocratic societal features “make understanding tribal cultures essential to all responsible activists who seek life-affirming social change that can result in a real decrease in human and planetary destruction and in a real increase in quality of life for all inhabitants of planet earth” (2);
  • western perspectives on and studies of the NA tribal system are “erroneous at base because they view tribalism from the cultural bias of patriarchy and thus either discount, degrade, or conceal gynocratic features or recontextualize those features so that they will appear patriarchal” (4).

As a non-Native, feminist scholar, Allen’s work is exciting and extremely helpful to me, and allows me to more deeply understand the real, every-day-life implications of historical representations on Native Americans and their communities, providing a clear insight into NA OoS that I would completely misunderstand and potentially misrepresent.


Vizenor’s 1994 Work

Just as the one of the main aims of Allen’s tribal feminism seems to be her overturning of centuries-old historical representation of Native Americans, so too does Gerald Vizenor and his trickster hermeneutics work to overturn (literally, flip on its head) false representations or essentialisms of Native Americans. Again, in order to understand Vizenor’s work, it’s important to consider his life, and author Kimberly M. Blaeser, in “Gerald Vizenor: postindian liberation,” presents thorough insight into Vizenor’s life. Vizenor was born in 1934 to a mixed-blood Ojibwe father and a white mother, and identifies with the Crane clan of the White Earth Anishinaabeg; Blaeser notes that the crane, as animal and metaphor, appears and informs quite a bit of Vizenor’s work. Vizenor joined the army at a young age, and it was through his military travels that Vizenor was exposed to Asian literature and expression, particularly the haiku tradition. Though he barely had a high school diploma, Vizenor entered the university system, and eventually received a B.S. from the University of Minnesota in child development in 1960. In the early sixties, Vizenor also began working with Edward Copeland in his graduate studies at UM, and published numerous volumes of haiku collections, including Raising the Moon Vines (1964). Vizenor eventually made connections between haikus and Ojibwe dream songs, and in the mid-sixties throughout the seventies, published more volumes of poetry and discussion on the intersections between haikus and dream songs, including Summer in the Spring: Lyric Poems of the Ojibway (1965).

While publishing these volumes, Vizenor became actively involved with the political situation of the NA peoples in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and eventually became the executive director of the American Indian Employment and Guidance Center. During the seventies, Vizenor increasingly wrote freelance pieces for various newspaper publications, covering the growing unrest that became the American Indian Movement. Blaeser significantly notes that in Vizenor’s work as a journalist we start to see his theoretical language developing, particularly in his critiques of AIM leaders “for capitalizing on Indian stereotypes for publicity and their perceived failure to invest their time in working for long-term changes” (261). By the end of the seventies and into the eighties, Vizenor began publishing full-length novels and criticism, and the figure of the trickster begins to come into play. As Blaeser notes, Vizenor significantly writes in the preface to his 1978 collection Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade, “‘Language determines culture and the dimensions of consciousness’” (262). Vizenor’s most openly postmodern turn was, as Blaeser argues, his 1978 Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart, which “begins a trend of intertextuality” for Vizenor, as clues to Bearheart also lie in Wordarrows (262), and the trickster figure is consistently employed throughout.

While Vizenor is publishing in multiple genres (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, journalism) at an unbelievable rate and being politically active throughout the sixties and seventies, he also begins teaching at a series of institutions throughout the sixties, up until the nineties. Vizenor becomes a visiting professor at a number of institutions, and eventually returned to teach at UC Berkeley in the nineties. It was during the nineties that Vizenor began publishing some of his most influential theoretical discourse, which combined elements of postmodernism, structuralism, deconstruction, and tribal knowledge. His theoretical work often appears in academic journal publications or anthologies of NA criticism (such as “The Ruins of Representation: Shadow Survivance and the Literature of Dominance,” which appeared in a 1993 edition of the American Indian Quarterly), but also is reflected in his fictional novels, such as the 1991 The Heirs of Columbus or the 1992 Dead Voices. His 1994 Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance was a fuller collection of just his theoretical work over the past decade or so, and Manifest Manners clearly focuses on his theoretical use of trickster hermeneutics.

The details of Vizenor’s life presented above is (sincerely!) a very condensed list; Blaeser presents a much fuller treatment of Vizenor’s life and work in her piece, and even her piece is condensed. The sheer amount of projects and activism by Vizenor alone shows just how profoundly active and influential he has been in the field of NA studies, before the NA Renaissance—he truly is one of the top publishers and most outspoken scholars in the field. And yet, Vizenor has come under constant scrutiny and outright dismissal because of the amount he has published (criticism such as time absent from the real community, and too much time spent in the institution), and because of his use of postmodern theories (or western approaches) to NA OoS. Additionally, because Vizenor’s work centers around his intertextuality (as Blaeser points out) and what he calls trickster hermeneutics, Vizenor’s pieces are very difficult to understand, and to fully understand a single piece, it’s necessary to be familiar with his other work. In a back-handed compliment, Treur points out in his 2011 talk “The Cultural Twilight” that “Vizenor alone seems to be the critic everyone can agree is generative even if they can’t understand him, or perhaps that’s why there is agreement about his work” (53). To go on, David J. Carlson, in his “Trickster Hermeneutics and the Postindian Reader: Gerald Vizenor’s Constitutional Praxis,” writes that if we take to heart to the criticisms put forth by Native scholars such as Treur and even Craig Womack, “there would seem to be little place for Vizenor in an increasingly praxis-oriented field” (14). As a scholar who is only slightly familiar with postmodern and structuralist theories, I cannot offer a full argument as to why his work is valuable to postmodern or structuralist camps; however, I feel I can argue that his theoretical approach is relevant, helpful, and exciting in NA studies, because of the exact point Treur has made. Trickster hermeneutics, as Carlson helps to define them in his study of Vizenor, is “the reading practice into which his texts seek to interpellate their ideal reader” (13-14), or in other words, is a new way to knowledge, in which all readers—Native and non-Native alike—abandon previous readings or understandings of what a Native American is, does, or symbolizes. As Treuer notes, we can’t always understand Vizenor—and that’s the point. Vizenor works unceasingly to constantly shift, transform, mutate, undermine, redefine what it means to be Native or indigenous, because as Vizenor implies in “The Ruins of Representation: Shadow Survivance and the Literature of Dominance,” we should want to see the “ruins of representation” of the figure of the Native American, because there is no such thing as one figure or symbol.

I quickly realized in my own reading of Vizenor’s “The Ruins of Representation” that I would not be able to follow and properly understand unless I brought in other sources. Blaeser and Carlson’s respective works, which are both listed above, are immensely helpful, as is Kathyn Hume’s “Gerald Vizenor’s Metaphysics.” Additionally, as Blaeser pointed out that having an intertextual understanding of Vizenor is essential, I also referenced a few articles that Vizenor published in the same time period as “The Ruins of Representation,” or articles that included the same terminology, including: “Trickster Discourse” (1990); “Native American Indian Literature: Critical Metaphors of the Ghost Dance” (1992); and “American Indian Art and Literature Today: survivance and tragic wisdom” (2011). Throughout these pieces, a reader is led through Vizenor’s trickster hermeneutics, in which we are forced to constantly question his meaning for terms such as shadow(s), trace(s), survivance, trickster, tragic wisdom, postindian, warrior, aural performance, ruins of representation, manifest manners, and simulation. He repeats these terms consistently throughout all four of the pieces listed above (and others outside of the four focused on in this piece), and even repeats certain explanations nearly word for word. For example, as Vizenor outlines in both “The Ruins of Representation” and in “Critical Metaphors of the Ghost Dance,” he finds four postmodern conditions in the critical responses to NA literatures:

  • “the first is heard in aural performances;”
  • “the second condition is unbodied in translations;”
  • “the third is trickster liberation, the uncertain humor of survivance that denies the obscure maneuvers of manifest manners, tragic transvaluations, and the incoherence of cultural representations;
  • “the fourth postmodern condition is narrative chance, the cross causes in language games, consumer simulations, and the histories of postexclave publications.”    (“The Ruins of Representation” 7-8)

We can begin to understand these four conditions through reading Vizenor’s work intertextually, and through the insight provided by scholars such as Carlson, Blaeser, and Hume (who have all read Vizenor’s work extensively). There is a common thread that can be understood throughout Vizenor’s writing on the four conditions above, and on the ideas of survivance, the ruins of representation, and manifest manners. The central argument that Vizenor puts forth in these works, and which is particularly highlighted in “The Ruins of Representation,” is that postmodernism, deconstruction, and structuralism, as theoretical bodies that work to reveal the instability of language and representation through language, are actually incredibly necessary to modern NA studies, for without overturning static definitions of what it means to Native, the communities risk becoming static themselves, and thus succumbing to the very colonialist forces that have always set to define and destroy them.

As Vizenor argues in the opening lines of “The Ruins of Representation”:

The postmodern turn in literature and cultural studies is an invitation to the ruins of representation; the invitation uncovers traces of tribal survivance, trickster discourse, and the remanence of intransitive shadows…the traces are shadows, shadows, shadows, the natural coherence of archshadows, visions, and memories in heard stories. The postmodern shadows counter paracolonial histories, dickered testimonies, simulations, and the banal essence of consumerism; at the same time, trickster pronouns, transformations, and the shimmers of tribal consciousness are heard in literature. (7)

Vizenor is arguing that postmodernism, as a theory and a form of “trickster discourse” itself, can help readers to displace inaccurate and unhealthy representations, or “simulations,” of indigenous peoples, and can help Native writers find new ways to reveal “tribal consciousness,” through the use of trickster hermeneutics and constant “transformations.” To discover this argument, much reading and learning was required on my part. It must be said then that Vizenor did his job as a critic, for I was forced to read much of his work and even the work of others, and I was forced to consider what trickster hermeneutics means from his perspective, colored by his life as scholar and as a White Earth Anishinaabeg. His work forced me to see the mutability of language (as he changes connotations himself), and left me questioning the authorial flatness and one-dimensional language of historical and academic record and representation. In other words, I argue, along with Carlson in his work on Vizenor, that Vizenor’s writing is as much praxis as it is theory, and therefore should be considered just as relevant and exciting as any tribally-based approach, even if we have to spend a lifetime working through it. (Again, isn’t that the point?)

While the current state of the field demands and defines tribally-centered, and not Western-based, approaches as the most legitimate, Vizenor still writes on, and Allen would most likely do the same. Though I understand the need for more development of tribally-centered theories and approaches—and there is an undeniable need—I do hope for the continual evolution of Vizenor’s trickster hermeneutics and a tribal feminism of some kind, as these theoretical bodies open common ground for all scholars to appropriately study NA OoS and epistemologies. It seems the long-term viability of most subfields in English seems to point to interdisciplinarity and a wide range of approaches, and yet the tension of how to do this respectfully and appropriately in Native American literary and cultural studies remains. Though I am not Native, and cannot speak for any Native scholar or community, I can affirm that Allen’s tribal feminism and Vizenor’s trickster hermeneutics opened an entirely new perspective on the field for me, personally. I have to argue then that non-Native scholars who are serious about respectfully and appropriately learning a different way of seeing NA literature and even the world should seriously consider these approaches, as respect (to me) seems to begin with knowledge and change.


Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. Introduction and “Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches in Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale.” The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon P, 1992. 1-7, 222-244. Print.

Blaeser, Kimberly M. “Gerald Vizenor: Postindian Liberation.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Eds. Joy Porter Kenneth Roemer. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2005. 257-269. Print.

Bloom, Harold, ed. “Paula Gunn Allen.” Native American Women Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998. 1-10. Print.

Carlson, David J. “Trickster Hermeneutics and the Postindian Reader: Gerald Vizenor’s Constitutional             Praxis.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 2011: 13-47.  JSTOR Journals. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth, Tom Holm, John Red Horse, James Riding In. “First Panel: Reclaiming American Indian Studies.” Wicazo Sa Review 20.1 (2005): 169-177. Web. 10 October 2014.

Churchill, Mary. Paula Gunn Allen Online Memorialpaulagunnallen.net. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Hume, Kathryn. “Gerald Vizenor’s Metaphysics.” Contemporary Literature XLVIII.4  (2007): 580-612. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Krupat, Arnold. Dead Voices, Living Voice: On the Autobiographical Writing of Gerald Vizenor.” Modern Critical Views: Native-American Writers. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998. 151-159. Print.

. “Review: Red Matters.” College English 63.5 2001: 655-661. JSTOR Journals. Web. 24 Sept. 2014.

Peyer, Brend. “Non-fiction Prose.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Eds. Joy Porter Kenneth Roemer. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2005. 105-124. . Print.

Treuer, David. “The Cultural Twilight.” University of California in Los Angeles. UCLA American Indian      Studies Center, Los Angeles, CA. Gathering Native Scholars and Artists–A Celebration of Forty Years. 22      Oct. 2009. Conference Speaker.

St. Clair, Janet. “Fighting for her Life: The Mixed-Blood Woman’s Insistence Upon Selfhood.” Modern Critical Views: Native-American Writers. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998. 151-159. Print.

Van Dyke, Annette. “Women Writers and Gender Issues.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature. Eds. Joy Porter Kenneth Roemer. Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2005. 85-102. Print.

Vizenor, Gerald. “The Ruins of Representation: Shadow Survivance and the Literature of Dominance.” American Indian Quarterly 17.1 (1993): 7-30. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.

—. “Native American Indian Literature: Critical Metaphors of the Ghost Dance.” World Literature Today 66.2 (1992): 223-227. Web. 4  Nov. 2014.

—. “Trickster Discourse.” American Indian Quarterly 14.3 (1990): 277-287. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

—. “American Indian Art and Literature Today: survivance and tragic wisdom.” Museum International 62.3 (2010): 41-51. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

—.Gerald Vizenor. hanksville.org/storytellers/vizenor/. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

PAB Entry #1 (Treuer)

Treuer, David. “The Cultural Twilight.” University of California in Los Angeles. UCLA American Indian      Studies Center, Los Angeles, CA. Gathering Native Scholars and Artists–A Celebration of Forty Years. 22      Oct. 2009. Conference Speaker.

David Treur, Author of Rez Life

David Treuer speaking on his book, Rez Life, at USC (2012)

In his speech to the 2009 Gathering of Native/American Scholars and Artists: 40th Anniversary symposium (celebrating forty years of American Indian Studies at UCLA), Treur outlines the history of the field of Native American literature and criticism, the current state, and his predictions and hopes for the future of the field.

Treuer opens his talk by quoting from Paul Apodoca’s preceding talk, “The Future of American Indian Studies,” referencing Apodoca’s idea of two approaches in Native American studies: the understanding that Native American Studies programs give the Native Community a voice (“‘activist positioning’”), and the understanding that “‘Native Studies is a legitimizing practice’” (48). Treuer references these two approaches in order to explain how the field arrived at its earliest methodology, in which “to claim space for its expression, American Indian literature and criticism argued…that its subject and method was other, different, because its subject was its method,” for “the structure and sense and politics of the thing was Indian and derived from Indian ways of thinking and making meaning” (48).

However, though Treuer concedes that this methodology was the acceptable during the Renaissance of the 1960s, it’s no longer acceptable, especially in light of the current conditions of reservations and urban communities–what he argues must now be the true work of American Indian Literature. As he contends, “what was happening in the academy in the 1980s and 1990s often had precious little to do with the mean struggles…to suggest that Indian academia and living Indian communities are on the same page, are even of the same paper, might dangerously privilege the academy and undervalue and undermine the concerns of Native American communities, many of which are struggling with issues of poverty and power and the fight to hold on to languages and cultures” (49).

Treuer’s critique of privileging the concerns of the academy over the concerns of Native American communities rings uncomfortably true. In my travels this summer, I had the pleasure of seeing the Grand Canyon, and the absolute horror of seeing part of the Hualapai reservation as we drove to and from the entrance of one of the world’s most visited parks. Though each person’s entrance fee to the park is easily forty dollars–and though the park sits in the middle of Hualapia land–the community around the park lives in abject poverty. Shacks made of sheet metal, cardboard, and pieces of ragged wood lined the road, many homes were either burnt out, missing doors, windows, and parts of a roof, and the local post office (flying a giant American flag)served as the nearest food supply for forty miles–and serviced a community with less than roughly ten cars.

Treur continues his criticism of the academy and the state of the field throughout the remainder of his speech, in warning against “sentimental” literature and scholarship that has focused perhaps too long on establishing a literary nationalism (50). Through his comparison of Native American studies to the course the Irish Literary Revival or Celtic Twilight, he is concerned with and questions the possibility of acculturation in the field, in which “culture is something we talk about but never do,” hence the fear of a “cultural twilight” in the field (52).

Treur ultimately calls for a “new kind of modernism,” and agrees with American Indian poet Erika Wurth in her push for a “‘fourth wave’” of the field (53). The newest and most exciting work, Treur feels, is currently underway by younger American Indian poets and filmmakers, whose primary work seems to be language and culture recovery, and a real reconnection to their respective communities.